From Endurance to Dressage
We did go to a show, but we didn't actually "show." It was the first time I've ever scratched. I've almost done it plenty of times before, but my philosophy has always been if I paid for it, I am riding it. That idea served me well with Speedy but not so much with Izzy.
During an earlier lesson, I told Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, that I didn't want to to go to the show. That too was a first. I love showing. I don't love failing, and I certainly don't enjoy almost dying, both of which were all I did last show season. Sean didn't press me too hard, but he thought I needed to go. What could I possible accomplish by going? Sean's answer was quite simple - nothing. The trip wouldn't be about scores. It was simply a way to find out where we are.
When I still expressed my doubts, and they were big ones, Sean made the following suggestion: I should go to the show and just do a warm up ride. If the warm up was fun and easy, we could then consider doing a test. If that was fantastic, we could consider doing a second test. I was still doubtful, but Sean felt that it would be worthwhile. He also insisted that I braid and dress. Whether we made it into the show ring or not, he wanted Izzy to understand that it was a show.
With an actual, articulated plan, I agreed. I did the predawn wake up and was at Starbuck's by 5:30 a.m.;Izzy was braided by 6:30. My dearest friend in the world agreed to make the trip to Tehachapi with me. By 6:50 we were on the road. We pulled into the Bear Valley Equestrian Center and parked. After unloading Izzy, we hung his hay net and a bucket of water. I checked in, got my number, and quickly changed into my show clothes.
I'll write about the specifics in another blog post, but since Sean couldn't come all the way to Tehachapi, we decided to try and use the Pivo so that he could coach me through the warm up. While I was waiting for him to join me in the Pivo Meet, I decided to go ahead and starting warming up. Izzy immediately lost his marbles. He slammed on the brakes, threatened to rear and emphatically said nope, no way, no how. Thankfully, my friend Kathy was there, and even though she knew I didn't want to show, I could not walk out of the warm up after having just driven an hour and a half. I sucked it the heck up.
To my relief, Sean was suddenly in my ear. He was able to quickly assess the situation and suggested I stay closer to the gate. The warm up ring is a ginormous arena, but there are cows at the far end, and Izzy's I can handle only so much threshold started this side of halfway across the arena. It wasn't easy, but with Sean's support, Izzy eventually let me take control and put him to work. We schooled for nearly an hour, but by the time we were through, horses had come and gone, we had calmly cantered, done shoulder-in, a bit of half pass, and even some imaginary centerlines.
Even had I not already scratched, we schooled past my ride times. Neither Sean nor I cared. I was actually relieved to not have to show - so was Izzy! Sean was very pleased with Izzy and felt that the day was a complete success. We were able to school through some rough moments, but we finished with a happy horse. We left the warm up and went straight back to the trailer. Izzy looked a little surprised, but finishing with a quiet horse who wasn't stressed out was our goal for the day.
Once I was back at home, I called Sean and we discussed next plans. It seems that moving down from Second to First wasn't enough to help ease Izzy's show anxiety. Moving down to just the warm up seems to be what he needs. Our next thought is to head to a schooling show in June and just do the warm up again. We'll keep that same plan through the summer. If that's what it takes to help Izzy conquer his show anxiety, I'm all in!
If nothing else, doing the warm up is cheaper than paying for classes, and we still get to put on our party clothes.
I like puzzles. I rarely do them because once I dump the pieces out of the box, I can't focus on anything else. My strategy is to locate all of the edge pieces first so that I can build the frame of the puzzle. Once that's done, I begin working on the different pictures of the puzzle, usually by color. Every once in a while, I'll get to a point where I'll really need a certain piece to connect several sections. I'll know what it should look like: red on the bottom with a bit of a blue stripe, three "outs" and one "in." When I find that one elusive piece, a section of the puzzle is revealed.
Over the weekend, I took a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. My ride from the day before had been a complete disaster. It was so bad that after just 26 minutes in the saddle, I burst into tears, jumped down, and put Izzy away. I sent a very sad faced emoji-filled text to Sean and started writing Izzy's for sale ad. Sean called me later that evening to help me figure out what had happened, and we came up with a game plan for the next day's ride.
The next morning, with Sean in my ear coaching, Izzy started out really focused and happy. Sean explained (once again) that I had made a good decision the day before. Quitting when things are going nowhere is a good training choice if the rider - that would be me, can't control her emotions. Izzy's willingness to work with me on Saturday proved that what had happened the day before hadn't caused any resentment on his part. While I was happy about his willingness to once again be my partner, I still needed to know just what the hell had happened. It didn't take us long to figure it out.
With a CDS-rated show the next day, the plan was to run through the tests a few times to see what might be fixable in 30 minutes. As soon as I turned up centerline and tried to track left, Izzy spooked hard. I tried it again, and again, and again. It became apparent very quickly that centerline was going to be a very big problem. Suddenly, there was the missing puzzle piece.
We've known from the very beginning that Izzy gets show nerves. We've been able to do really good work in the warm up, but as soon as we get in the dressage court, Izzy gets so tense that he becomes very difficult to "ride." During the year that I've been working with Sean, he's been able to slowly uncover the many causes of Izzy's tension. In the beginning, I had so little control while riding him that it was hard to know what the problem was. The list has been pretty long, but we have steadily addressed them one by one, checking them off as we go.
At the top of Izzy's Tension Causing Issues list is now centerline. Fortunately, Sean has seen this one before and had a plan ready. Sean was able to recognize that Izzy knows the difference between simply schooling and test riding, not even showing, just test riding. Izzy has associated centerline, rightly so, with a test. He clearly has test anxiety even if it is just at home with no judge.
To overcome this anxiety, Sean's strategy is to ride the centerline - sometimes halting, sometimes not, into one movement. He does that until the horse no longer worries about the centerline and the first movement. From there, he builds on a second movement and a third, all very slowly doing only as much as the horse feels comfortable doing.
I now have homework, a lot of homework. Every ride will now include work down the centerline. Speedy loved showing so much that going down centerline was always so much fun. He earned his best scores on both the centerline and crossing the diagonal, and he especially loved the last centerline because he knew he was done with the test. It was a part of test riding that I rarely worked on. Don't fix it if it isn't broken. Izzy's centerline is definitely broken.
Having a problem isn't discouraging to me if I have a plan to work on it. A problem with no plan makes me want to throw in the towel and quit. I am really encouraged by this new puzzle piece, and I can't wait to get started on this next section of our puzzle.
Now, where's that blue piece with with the straight edges?
Over the past nine months, my Saturday mornings have included a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. As much as I'd like to sleep in, at least for a little while, I enjoy the early morning lessons more than I need an extra hour in bed. This Saturday, Sean and several other clients were at a show in Temecula, so I didn't get a lesson. Did I sleep in? No, and not only did I not sleep in, I somehow made it to the barn a bit earlier than normal.
While I missed having Sean in my ear coaching me around the dressage court, he was with me in spirit. I rode just the same as I would have had he been there virtually. As I sit and read that last sentence, I am chuckling. What strange times we live in. My coach, who's never even with me in person, couldn't even make it virtually. Is that weird or what?
I tend to keep my weekday rides a little shorter so that on Saturday, Izzy still has plenty of gas left in his tank. On Sunday, I usually only ride long enough to review what I learned the day before. Since I was on a horse with a full tank, I rode for nearly an hour doing what I know we would have done had Sean been "with" me. That might seem about as interesting as watching grass grow, but it has only been in the past few months that Izzy's I AM DONE meter has allowed us to work past 30 minutes. For so long the second half of the lesson has been all about figuring out how to re-engage him without getting sucked into the fight he so desperately wants to start. That I was able to get 50 minutes of solid work done without needing to refocus him, speaks volumes about our progress.
After my last lesson, Sean was able to help me identify yet another part of my body that needed some tweaking. My right shoulder and upper arm do not move with the same level of elasticity as does my left. Throughout the week, I focused on swinging my right arm more freely while walking, and I even did some "swimming arms" while walking back and forth from my classroom to the school's office. I am quite sure I looked a bit like a crazy old lady, but I didn't care. I also realized that I spend a lot of my day holding on to a computer mouse with my right hand which definitely creates a different amount of tension in my arm that my left never sees.
While riding on Saturday morning, I spent a good deal of mental energy focused on my right arm. Was it moving? Was it moving as much as the left? Why was it stuck against my ribs? Move, damn you, move! The issue is not not fixed, but being aware of the fact that my right arms does not move like my left arm is information that has been filed away in the good to know category.
After doing some honest self-critiquing, I can say that I have definitely made some progress in addressing my unevenness. My arms move pretty well in the walk, and in the trot the horse's head is fairly stable so the "give" by the rider is different. It's in the canter where the rider really needs to follow with her arms. And by rider, I mean me. I find it very telling that it is often the right rein that is the stickiest in the canter. The right rein is the one that Izzy wants to lean on the most. Could that be because I've given him a place to lean on?
Now that I am aware that Izzy's lack of balance between both reins is partly my fault, I am working very consciously to make sure that I don't brace my right arm against my side. The result is that I find myself relying much more on my seat and legs to control the canter rather than using the right rein. I saw the effect in Izzy almost immediately. There has been more movement in his back, which means the canter is beginning to feel more like a rolling wave than a pogo stick.
While I was able to be very effective on my own on Saturday, I'll be glad to be back on schedule with Sean. I am sure that "fixing" my right shoulder will only reveal the next crooked link in my riding.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage has the patience of a saint. He's also my kind of teacher. As a teacher of kids, I know that if you keep explaining something in a new way with different words, your student will eventually get it. For some, it takes longer than others, but they're all capable of learning.
In education circles, we call this a growth mindset. Teachers who do not believe that all students can learn will end up with just what they expect; kids that don't get it. With a growth mindset, you truly believe they can learn, but you recognize and understand that it might not be today. Sean's patience with me is paying off. Over the past month or so, my mind feels like a blooming flower. Each week I feel my understanding broadening and deepening.
I don't know if things just come in threes or whether three ideas in a week is all I am capable of learning, but that seems to be my magic number. On Saturday, I left the arena with three solid pieces of homework.
1) Move My Right Shoulder
This was one of those body mechanics ideas that you never see or feel until someone points it out. For MONTHS, like 12 months, Sean has asked over and over that I be elastic in my arms. I know I am much improved in that area, but when he said it again on Saturday, I finally asked him to be more specific.
Where am I not being elastic? I asked him. Did he mean in my elbow or my shoulder? Arms only move at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, so without some specificity, I can't be sure what is not moving. Sean explained that it was my right shoulder. And with just that point of reference, I felt it. I am right handed, so it only makes perfect sense that the muscle memory and strength of that arm is going to be different than the left.
It was an immediate moment of self-awareness. I instantly felt how my left arm is weaker and naturally stays "looser." The right arm stays more braced against my body even when I feel as though I am being elastic. Over the past few days I've been walking around shaking out my right shoulder trying to copy the looseness that I feel in the left shoulder. I doubt Izzy will feel the difference immediately, but I am definitely working on it.
2) To Engage His Brain, Walk the Smallest Walk Possible
Oh, this one was fun! Six months ago, this would have caused a massive explosion, so to be able to ask for a smaller and smaller walk proves how much improvement Izzy has made. After losing his marbles a bit, Sean suggested I change the subject and get Izzy to refocus. Instead of merely doing walk to halt, Sean encouraged me to see how slow I could make Izzy's walk without actually halting.
Every time I thought it was as slow as it would go, Sean said, slower! He wanted me to feel each and every footfall. Could I make it slower still? Once Izzy could hold the tiniest walk possible without pushing against my hand, I let him walk normally. We repeated that exercise over and over until Izzy was once again completely focused on me. This is obviously an exercise that can only be done if Izzy can handle it. Holding him back for too long will only make the explosion that much bigger, but on that day, it really helped him stop trying to trot away from me.
3) Inside/Outside Aids In the Half Pass
Speedy's half passes were never brilliant. It was a difficult movement for him, so I never learned how to finesse my aids. With Izzy as my dance partner now, I am learning how not to step on his toes. If I want to be the one leading the dance, I need to learn how to better move his body around. No one wants a dance partner that can't do the moves.
Now that I am riding the movement more correctly, Sean asked me to start finessing the half pass. The first thing was to use my inside leg to push Izzy forward toward both reins. With more energy, Izzy will show more expression and crossing of the legs. Of course that's not what happened. Instead, he cantered which was super exciting because it meant that he accepted my inside leg and did what I asked. It was a simple mistake, and one I actually praised him for. We tried it a few more times with me trying to ask but not over-ask. He still offered to canter, but we both started to understand how much leg to use and how much to respond.
Along with more inside leg, Sean encouraged me to use more outside rein to move the haunches. When I asked how much outside rein to use, Sean's reply was less specific than I had hoped for. Essentially, it is something to play around with because it's about asking for a degree of movement. Just a touch more haunches with a touch more power. It's a dance - a little with my inside leg, a little with my outside rein - all of which will have Izzy dancing much more elegantly across the diagonal.
We're not really dancing yet, but we're both feeling the rhythm.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. You know, Show me sand the floor. Now show me wax on, wax off. Show me paint the fence. You've seen it; you know what I mean. Karate Kid is one of my favorite movies to think about when I am trying to understand dressage. If a kid from Reseda, CA can win the All-Valley Karate Championship after just a few months of lessons, this middle-aged rider can at least ride her horse from A to C without all hell breaking loose. That's why I call my AHA moments, "take aways." You know, as in Chinese take out containers.
I had a long week - you might hear about it later this week, so I was not my usual, over-achieving self for Saturday's lesson. This was a good thing because I am a better listener when I don't have so much energy. I was also more introspective than normal which meant I was more interested in talking about effectiveness of aids than actually riding. No way Sean was going to let me spend an hour talking though, so there was also plenty of riding. I had two things that I wanted to focus on, and Sean threw in a third.
1) Pushing My Hands Forward
For an entire year, Sean has encouraged me to push my hands forward. It wasn't until this last lesson that I actually attached some meaning to what he had said. If you're anything like me, you nod and agree with most of what your trainer says because you're pretty sure you ARE doing what he's asking for. But then, you stop and think: If I am doing what he's saying, why the H E double hockey sticks does he KEEP telling me to do it? Ruh-roh. Yeah. Probably not really doing it.
So, as soon as we started the lesson, I admitted all of the above and then explained how I had played around with the idea over the past week. Sean was (probably) happy to hear that I am now aware that I haven't been putting my hands forward and jumped in with some very animated explanation. I know I geek out completely when my own 5th grade students ask a question that reveals deeper cogitation on their part. Anyway, his explanation went something along the lines of this:
It's not throwing the reins away though. When Izzy gives after an ask, I should push my hands, or maybe even just one hand, forward an inch or two for just a single stride. If he takes that invitation to reach for the bit, go with it. If he doesn't, no big deal. Just come back to where he is to reestablish the contact and ask again. And again. And again. The hope is that eventually, he will reach forward when asked, and maybe even reach forward on his own. We're not there yet, but at least I am now conscious of the need to keep asking and have a plan for what to do when he does. Or doesn't.
2) The Shoulder-in
During the lesson from the weekend before, Sean helped me "fix" some of what was wrong with my aids for shoulder-in. I was using mostly inside aids rather than inside leg to outside rein. Given that it's me we're talking about, it should come as no surprise that I turned a pretty good understanding to total shite the very next day. Suddenly, I couldn't keep Izzy in the shoulder-in at all. I was riding inside leg to outside rein so hell bent on getting it right that I managed to spectacularly destroy even the crappy shoulder-in I had been riding before "getting it."
Sean had a fix for that too. He explained that I was now using my "correct" aids too strongly. Just like we've talked about in the leg yield, I need to put my aids on, and then LET Izzy do the movement, finessing it as needed. He was right. I had my aids so firmly in place that I was blocking Izzy's ability to go forward. Once I put him in the shoulder-in and then quit asking for it, he started to move forward instead of bracing and leaning on me. This horse is an excellent barometer for reading the effectiveness of my aids. If I don't ask correctly, and then allow him to answer, he lets me know it.
3) The Half Pass
I hadn't planned on asking about the half pass, and actually, it's something I never work on anymore. I have become so obsessed with rhythm, tempo, and suppleness that I forget to work on any of the "tricks." Once my shoulder-in was looking better, Sean instructed me to ride travers. And once I was sitting to the inside and riding forward into both reins evenly - to the best of my ability anyway, Sean had me ride the half pass. He teaches that the half pass is really just travers on a diagonal line.
I learned to ride the half pass on Speedy, and it was always so difficult. Speedy's strength was in the forward movements rather than the lateral ones, so I am learning to change my aids while riding Izzy. To ride a half pass out of the corner with Speedy, I had to keep him well bent around my leg as I came out of the corner, or I couldn't get the haunches to follow. They would trail along with very little likeness to a travers. I had to really over-ride the movement. With Izzy, he can almost wrap his haunches around to touch his shoulder. This means I am now under-riding the half pass. I need to ride him out of the corner as though in shoulder-in but head toward M or H on the diagonal line, and then ask for the travers, not before. If I start with the haunches in, those same haunches are likely to get to M before his nose does.
After a few attempts, Sean thought it was much improved. Not a Third Level half pass, but a developing one. I explained that rather than over-riding the movement, I am under-riding it. Once I figure out my aids, the half pass will be really pretty. Izzy can already do it; he just needs me to ask him correctly.
With my recent obsession with the basics, the Karate Kid metaphor is even more appropriate. In the scene where Daniel is frustrated about doing all of Mr. Miyagi's chores, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel, "Not everything is as seems." Then he shows Daniel how painting the fence, waxing the car, and sanding the deck - the most basic of movements, are the foundational skills for karate. It's an inspiring moment in the movie and one that I think about when the basics start to seem boring. At the end of the scene, Mr. Miyagi, with quiet confidence, tells Daniel, "Come back tomorrow."
My own Mr. Miyagi, Sean Cunningham, always finishes with, "Come back next week." With take aways like these last three, he doesn't have to tell me twice.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2022 Shows Schedule
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
2022 Completed …
2022 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2 Scores/1 Judges/60%: